Bewildering Stories Interviews
Rachel V. Olivier
Bewildering Stories is a big operation, as our Information page shows. Our Associate Editors are an elite group. Their critiques of submissions not only make Bewildering Stories possible, they are essential to making it the best it can be. The Associate Editors necessarily work anonymously, “behind the scenes.” Now we express our appreciation to them with a series of personal interviews.
How did you become involved with Bewildering Stories and when?
Bewildering Stories saved me from writing despair a few years ago. In 2007 and 2008 I’d written a few short stories and I was trying to send them out to various markets to find homes for them; I was getting nothing but “no thank you” notes. When I get a story back, even if all I get is a rejection and not a why, I like to take that as an opportunity to look at the story again and maybe rework it.
“Scary Things” kept getting returned and I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. One editor even went so far as to tell me that writing from a rat’s point of view didn’t work and I didn’t know what I was doing.
I made the mistake of replying to that rejection with a justification for my story and we ended up in a back and forth that was not professional. Note: NEVER DO THIS. No matter how angry or sad you get at what an editor says about your work, just gulp it back, save it for your friends. If you say anything, just say “thank you” and move on.
Because of what I did, I was banned from ever submitting anything else to that magazine. And the writing world is not that big, especially when it comes to speculative fiction. That editor’s friends came over to my blog and decided to beat me about the head and shoulders — virtually, not literally — even after I apologized to him.
I wondered if any of my writing would ever be taken seriously ever again after that. But, I put my best foot forward and kept trying, anyway. And, it’s funny, but a very few days later, I had two poems accepted at Electric Velocipede.
And “Scary Things,” after a couple of adjustments made at the request of the editor, was accepted at Bewildering Stories. It was published in January 2009. It felt like God and Universe had first slapped me down to teach me a lesson and then had let me know not to give up. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding the right markets for the right stories.
Is there anything you’d like to tell Bewildering Stories authors to do or not do?
Well, don’t do the above: don’t pick a fight with an editor. That’s not to say to not stand up for your writing if you believe some element needs to remain, but listen to your editor. Take it in. Learn how to discuss things in an intelligent manner. Learn to listen to yourself. Sometimes you’ll get critiques from people that feel right and sometimes the critiques will feel wrong. Go with your gut. But be polite about it.
And try to give back to the writing community when you can. I know there are big names out there who write articles about why they won’t read your manuscript, and you really shouldn’t expect pros to be able to proof or critique pro bono for you. But, if you’re willing to do your share of giving feedback and critique, taking time to read fellow writers’ work, then you’ll be able to get feedback and critique. And the writing world, for you anyway, may end up being a little happier place.
What are your favorite and least favorite parts of working as an Editor for Bewildering Stories?
I enjoy reading many of the stories that are sent my way. I often wonder what the writer does or doesn’t do with the story after I’ve read it. I wonder if I helped at all, or if they’re swearing at me the way I swear at editors in other places. I’m ashamed to say that sometimes I let stories sit too long. I hate doing that to writers. I know people sit on tenterhooks when it comes to hearing back about their stories.
What do you do in real life? What is your occupation?
Well, I have a part-time job at the neighborhood monthly newspaper, the Larchmont Chronicle as a receptionist, Gal Friday, whatever they need me to do, which varies from making coffee and taking out the recycling to proofreading and typing up copy and helping with putting the paper together.
I’m also sole proprietor of Putt Putt Productions, where I proofread, copy edit and give feedback on screenplays, dissertations, discographies, novels, self-help books, marketing copy, business letters, etc. I also write resumes, cover letters and sometimes other copy as well, depending on what it is.
Outside of that, I write my own fiction and poetry and send it out for consideration elsewhere, hopefully where I’ll get paid for it. I have recently self-published two books through Lulu.com. One is a collection of poetry called Rae’s Bar & Bistro and the other is republishing of my enovella, “The Holly and the Ivan” into hard copy.
What do you like most and least about it?
What I like most about it is that I’m doing what I like to do. I like working mostly on my own schedule and working with the people I work with. I love proofreading and copyediting other people’s work and helping them make it better. I love writing.
What I don’t like is that it’s not steady pay or steady work, and it’s not enough pay; I don’t have health insurance or a retirement plan and sometimes it’s a struggle to pay the rent. I’m also tired of making up excuses not to meet people for dinner or coffee, because there are only so many times you can say you can’t afford to go out for a cup of coffee or dinner. But if I get enough work, it’s lovely.
What advice would you give to a young person going into your line of work?
First, don’t give up. Second, figure out what your goal is, or at least your first set of goals when it comes to your writing or making a living in the world of words, and put that goal somewhere where you will see it every day.
Make sure you do one thing every day to help you on your way to that goal. Or at least as often as possible. If you have a job pulling shots at the local bar or coffee shop or folding sweaters at a retail store, then I get not being able to write your great American novel at the end of the evening when all you want to do is go to bed or blow off steam with your friends.
But when you can, pull out that novel and look at it. Or join a writers’ group, or create a writers’ group. Check out what’s available for free at the library or school. Or what you can afford, anyway. Little by little you’ll get where you need to be.
What do you do in your spare time (aside from reading Bewildering Stories stories)?
Sometimes I read and give feedback for stories for friends. I have also in the past read and reviewed books for the Illuminata, a quarterly through Tyrannasaurus Press. I work on my own fiction and poetry. I used to garden, when I had a garden. Lately, I have been getting into cooking again. I work out occasionally (not nearly enough). Or sometimes just sit and think with my cat.
Where do you live, if you don’t mind saying?
I live in Los Angeles, in a third-floor walk-up studio apartment with my orange tabby, Pye.
Where do you think you might like to live, either in reality or in your imagination?
I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. If I could, I would have a place at the beach, maybe Malibu or Oxnard; a penthouse in San Francisco or maybe Seattle; and a house in the mountains, say Mammoth, California or Evergreen, Colorado or somewhere along the Wenatchee River in Washington. But I would need a really good car and be able to move easily between all of them. Realistically, if I could just some day afford a small 1- or 2-bedroom house with a garden, that would be nice.
What’s your favorite book?
Oh, wow. There are many. One of my favorite books is Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.
Who are your favorite authors, and what about their works appeals to you most?
JRR Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, L.M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Mark Twain and L.M. Alcott are probably the writers who made me want to write as a kid.
As an adult, I fell in love with reading Italo Calvino, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Dorothy Sayers, Jim Butcher, Vicki Pettersen, Rachel Vincent, and a few others. When it comes to TV and movies, Joss Whedon and Tim Burton are two of my favorites.
I think I like these authors because they’re good storytellers. Some of them are also good with using language, but mostly I like the way they spin a good yarn. I love watching them work. I want to be able to sit down with them and have a beer or coffee or cup of tea and ask them about how and why they did what they did.
If you could invite any other writer to dinner who would you ask and why?
Any of the above authors. I’d love to have cocktails with Vicki Pettersen, and a pint or two with Joss Whedon and Neil Gaiman, or sit in a corner of the pub while the Inklings were in session to watch Tolkien and Lewis hash things out with their cohorts. I’d love to have dinner with Dorothy Sayers, wine with Italo Calvino, and have a writers workshop with MZB.
What’s the last book that you read and really enjoyed?
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. Before that, the first three books in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series.
If you could be any character — other than one of your own — from a book or movie who would it be? Why?
Buffy the Vampire Slayer, cuz she kicks ass and looks great. And also Xena Warrior Princess or Gabrielle the Bard, for the same reason.
How do you think literature might be used in education, especially in the age of the Internet?
I can’t cite the source right now, but there was an article published recently that said that reading literature lights up parts of the brain that TV and the Internet do not reach. Reading novels and poetry stretches you. It puts one in another place, imaginatively, and forces one’s brain to imagine what it is like. When one is spoon-fed what something looks and feels like, as is done on the Internet and on screen, one’s brain does not get that workout.
Do you write yourself? What kind of stuff?
When I write, I write poetry and speculative fiction of many sorts, from children to adult. I’d also like to write some murder mysteries some day.
How long have you been writing? What made you want to start writing?
I have wanted to write ever since I was 9 years old and read the Little House books and the Little Women books. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. I also wanted to do other things (nurse, doctor, missionary, architect, etc.), but I always came back to writing.
And I was always sort of puttering at it, but never felt like I quite got serious at until a few years ago when I realized it was either now or never. And I didn’t want to look back and say I hadn’t really tried.
Some authors have said that their parents were supportive of their efforts when young, and some have said they had to sneak around and hide. What was the case with you?
There was no hiding it. It’s just that it wasn’t taken that seriously as a life occupation. You can’t pay the rent with writing. And I don’t come from one of those families with expendable income who can support me in my madness. I needed to be able to support myself.
Mom and Dad both hoped I’d go into business or computers or at least education. Mom even suggested a few times while I was in college, that perhaps I should consider becoming a dental assistant as a back-up plan. They just wanted to make sure I could take care of myself.
It’s not easy to make a living as a writer. I’ve known contract writers who literally worked themselves to death: one had a stroke, one died of heart failure, and the other had diabetes. Writing is hard on your body, and it’s stressful when you can’t pay the bills. Other people see that you work from home and sit at your computer all day and don’t get it. It is work.
Where do you get your ideas?
Articles in the paper or online. Juxtaposition of two ideas. Reading mythology or fairy tales and wondering “what if.” Or just talking with friends.
When I was in junior high, I did a report in our career awareness class on what it takes to become a writer. And in the Occupational Handbook of the time, one of the things that stuck with me is that it said, just as a pilot needs to have more depth perception than the average person, so a writer needs to pay more attention to all the detail of the world than the average person. I’ve found if I pay attention, the ideas will come.
Where do you write?
If I’m writing for “pay” (resumes, cover letters or bios, marketing copy, etc.), or doing anything for pay (proofreading, formatting, etc), then I sit at my desktop computer. If I’m writing my fiction or poetry, I use my netbook or a pen and notebook and try to write somewhere else, either in my apartment or outside somewhere. Somewhere not at my desk. If I’m revising and reworking something, even if it’s fiction or poetry, then I’m back at my desktop.
When do you write: at set times or as the mood moves you?
I hate to say it, but a lot of times, I really do work best at night. The later, the better. I’d like it if I were a morning writer, and if I didn’t have my part-time job, which is in the mornings, then maybe I would be a morning writer.
Some writers say that they have to write a certain amount of words every day. Do you do this? Why or why not?
I try to work a certain amount of time rather than words. I know other writers who do a certain number of words. Whatever works.
Do you ever have a problem with writer’s block?
Who proofreads and critiques your work?
Friends in my writers group, or other fellow writers I know. My sister, too. She’s been a great reader for me.
Do you have a favorite among your works? Do you have a favorite character? If so, who is it, and what makes it your favorite?
I really like my Canto Sybilla girls! They’re the band that Holly is in in “The Holly and the Ivan.” The plan is to have one story per girl, though I’ve been pretty slow at getting out the rest of the stories. Plus, maybe a few extra.
Southport is loosely based on Bellingham, Washington, and a little on Wenatchee, Washington. I grew up in those places and went to college at Western Washington University. So, these characters are kind of reminiscent of people I’ve known there.
I have a novella “on ice” that needs revising that’s loosely based on the Cinderella story (like we need another one of those, right), but I really like the main character, her best friend, and her stepmother is so rotten it’s fun to write.
Also, I have a novel I’ve never finished where I really like the characters, also based on Bellingham and Wenatchee. But, since it’s still in a shoebox, we’ll just leave it there for now. But the villain is, again, really fun to write.
And a series of short stories based on a violin-toting private eye based in San Francisco. Also still in a shoebox. And a series of short stories based on Kiko, an orange tabby friend who passed away a few years ago. Also in the proverbial shoebox.
Who drives a story: you or your characters?
A little of both. I’ve heard that Stephen King says the first draft of a story is to tell yourself the story. In the first draft, I kind of let the characters lead me by the nose and show me the world and get to know them. After that, it’s up to me to assert some control and refine what’s there and make it understandable for other people.
What do you consider the strangest thing you’ve ever written?
You know, recently I dreamt that I was writing a dissertation on Spock, but I’ve never written that, per se. I have to say that it’s my poetry that usually demonstrates my experimental side.
There are a couple of long poems in my collection that are about Los Angeles (“Night Noises in the City”) and San Francisco (“Grasping in San Francisco”). They wander and meander and go all over the place. I knew no one except me would ever publish those.
Also, a poem that was published in Poetry Quarterly, fall 2010, called “Hot House Plants.” It’s written more in the mode of a scene from a play. “Schrodinger’s Cat’s Narrative,” also in Rae’s Bar & Bistro, seemed to leave some people scratching their heads and never got published anywhere else. I was writing from the point of view a cat watching his owners’ family fall apart. And since he’s in “the box” of his home and his heart, he is both alive and well and not alive and well at the same time he is experiencing the violence and turmoil of his family life. Schrodinger’s Cat as discussed in physics, but in real life. Yeah, no one but me seemed to get that one.
Almost every writer is inspired by someone or something else. What inspirations have you found?
Other people. Other people are my inspiration. I see what other people do and the odds they fight against. And I look at what I’ve done, as well. And I decide to keep going, because the alternative is to not keep going, and that would mean giving up. And I don’t want to think I’d be the character in the story who’d do that.